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Iranian unclear weapons program and the world's unclear response


That's not a typo. What is unclear about the Iran nuclear situation? Just about everything. To begin with, Iran claims they are not intent on developing nuclear weapons, but everyone assumes otherwise. One reason to be skeptical about Iranian intentions is a revelation by the former chief of staff of the Pakistani army, Mirza Aslam Beg, who claims Iran asked Pakistan for a bomb:

In the AP interview, Beg detailed nearly 20 years of Iranian approaches to obtain conventional arms and then technology for nuclear weapons. He described an Iranian visit in 1990, when he was army chief of staff.

"They didn't want the technology. They asked: 'Can we have a bomb?' My answer was: By all means you can have it but you must make it yourself. Nobody gave it to us."

So much for Iran's supposed need for nuclear power to generate electricity and scientific curiosity.

A second unclear issue is when Iran might acquire nuclear weapons. Israeli officials believe Iran would be able to produce weapons grade uranium in about two years. However, American experts believe Iran is about four years away from this stage.

Confusion was added to the estimate by reports that the enriched uranium hexaflouride (UF6) Iran claims to have produced was actually generated using enriched uranium gas acquired from the Chinese in 1991. If so, Iran might be farther from achieving fissionable isotope then they claim. However the report was quickly denied by an anonymous Iranian official according to a New York Times article:

This is correct. Preliminary tests were made using UF6 bought from China but one week after that, we started to use the UF6 that we have produced in Isfahan and now the UF6 that is being used in Natanz facility for enrichment is our own product,'' the Iranian diplomat, who asked not to be identified because of the issue's sensitivity, told Reuters.

It is unclear to me, though I may be the only one in the dark, how everyone can be so sure that the uranium enrichment program we know about is the only nuclear development program in Iran, or how the US could know that Iran is 4 years (some say 10 years) away from making a bomb? Couldn't they be hiding other programs? Couldn't they be preparing to produce fissionable plutonium in their heavy water reactor? The US atomic project had no help from stolen materials. It was conducted in secrecy in the 1940s. The technology that was developed didn't exist, waiting to be copied. The USA nonetheless developed two bombs in far less than ten years.

What is also unclear to me, is , if the US believes Iran can only produce a bomb in four years, why did US Assistant Secretary of state Rademaker say that they could do it in far less time:

Iran has informed the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency that it plans to construct 3,000 centrifuges at Natanz next year, Rademaker said.

``We calculate that a 3,000-machine cascade could produce enough uranium to build a nuclear weapon within 271 days,'' he said.

If Iran spends a year construcing 3,000 centrifuges, and then spends 271 days getting the cascade to work, that timescale would approximate the estimate of Israeli intelligence that the US supposedly discounted. If the US believed in April that Iran could have the bomb in a two years, why would they discount the Israeli intelligence estimate? On the other hand, that report was from Debkafiles, not necessarily the most reliable source. On the third hand, I only have two hands.

The next unclear point about this issue is, who is worried about the Iranian bomb? "Conventional wisdom" insists that it is the US is goaded on by Israel to take a tough stance on Iranian nuclear weapons. However, there have been quite a few articles in the Arab press expressing alarm at the possibility of Iranian nuclear weapons. The Gulf states announced that they are sending an envoy to try to mediate the crisis, and perhaps induce Iran to accept a European incentives package in return for giving up on their nuclear program. The remarks of Saudi prince Turki el Feisal in this connection may shed light on the position of the Saudi government:

"We're hoping a diplomatic solution would work and would allow us to have a third option rather than the two bad options that are there - either atomic weapons in Iran or taking them out," he told reporters.

Lee Smith comments in the Weekly Standard that Gulf States seem to be afraid of the Iranian nuclear program, but equally afraid to talk about it. He notes:

Some people are praying that the United States can stop Iran but won't say so publicly," says Tareq al-Homayed, editor-in-chief of the pan-Arab London-based daily Asharq Al-Awsat. "They don't want to be seen as acting alongside the United States."

"Iran has conducted an effective 'public diplomacy' campaign," says Emile el-Hokayem, a Middle East analyst at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, who has just returned from Tehran. "Arab populations are fertile ground for Iran's anti-U.S., anti-Israel propaganda [and accept] Iran's arguments about Israel, imperialism, U.S. hegemonic ambitions, and distaste for an Islamic nuclear power."

The Iranians have essentially taken a page out of the modern Middle East political playbook, where the adventurist regimes try to undermine their rivals by espousing and funding radical causes. Ahmadinejad is the new Nasser, and there's no reason to think the Iranians can't bluff themselves into a disastrous war with Israel just as Nasser's Egypt did in 1967 (he also wanted to dominate the Gulf). Ahmadinejad's ascendance and rhetorical flourishes have effectively driven a wedge between the Gulf states, which are terrified of him, and the radicals of the Mashreq region--Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority--where ordinary Arabs are delighting yet again in visions of an anti-Zionist apocalypse, even one that threatens their own existence. It is telling that many regional analysts think Hezbollah's arsenal of rockets constitutes a deterrent against any Israeli attack on Iran, apparently without recalling that the Egyptian air force was destroyed on the ground as the opening move of the 1967 war.

The situation appears to be a quite different however, from 1967, and therein we get to the additional unknown in the Iran unclear weapons crisis: namely, "What can do about it if the Iranians are not amenable to diplomacy?" Russian and Chinese diplomacy will probably block any effective action in the UN. In 1967 Israel fought a war against a nearby enemy through a land invasion. Some Iranian supporters like Juan Cole are conjuring up visions of a US or Israeli invasion of Iran that is just around the corner. However, this is definitely not an option for Israel, and it is not an option for the US unless it is directly attacked by Iran. Iran has a population of 80 million. Tehran is nearly a thousand miles from Tel Aviv, and a few intervene. Israel doesn't have a fleet that could land a million soldiers in Iran. Israel doesn't even have a million soldiers. Nobody can be sure of detroying the hardened underground installations that house Iran's enrichment program.

Like Lee Smith, Cole believes that the Iranian nuclear program is not intended to destroy Israel, but is rather a political play. He believes it is for internal consumption:

The crisis is not one of nuclear enrichment, a low-level attainment that does not necessarily lead to having a bomb. Even if Iran had a bomb, it is hard to see how they could be more dangerous than Communist China, which has lots of such bombs, and whose Walmart stores are a clever ruse to wipe out the middle class American family through funneling in cheaply made Chinese goods.

What is really going on here is a ratcheting war of rhetoric. The Iranian hard liners are down to a popularity rating in Iran of about 15%. They are using their challenge to the Bush administration over their perfectly legal civilian nuclear energy research program as a way of enhancing their nationalist credentials in Iran.

And like Lee Smith, Cole believes the worst could happn. In Cole's version, "the worst" is much worse than the 6 day war:

If this international game of chicken goes wrong, then the whole Middle East and much of Western Europe could go up in flames. The real threat here is not unconventional war, which Iran cannot fight for the foreseeable future. It is the spread of Iraq-style instability to more countries in the region.

Actually, the spread of Iraq-style instability could be more easily and certainly accomplished if Iran is allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. It is unclear why Iran not getting nuclear weapons would promote regional instability. Worse than Iraq-style instability, from the point of view of the US and its regional allies, would be the spread of Iranian style Islamist stability. That is exactly what Prince Turki El-Feisal is worried about, isn't it?

While there are good explanations for Iranian behavior as part of a rational plan, there are also other explanations. Slater Bakhtavan claims that Ahmadinejad is seeking to kindle a war that would bring about Armageddon and the coming of the 12th Imam, a central figure in Shi'ite religious beliefs.

According to Shi'te orthodoxy humans may not force or hasten the return of the Imam, but the Hojjateiehs a group of which Ahmadinejad is a member, opine that humans may stir up chaos to encourage his return. With his recent rhetoric vowing for the destruction of Israel, demanding deportation of the Jews to Europe and denying the Holocaust that the President seems to be doing just that.

In fact, his messianic axiom of the Twelfth Imam and the subsequent suppression of the forces of evil [modern day US, UK, Israel and many other nations] is central to Ahmadinejad's foreign policy.

The Iranian government's official policy has undercut efforts of the international community by rejecting a United Nations deadline to suspend Iran's nuclear program, threatening to quit the Non-Proliferation Treaty and vying that "nothing can stop Iran's path to nuclear technology."

The argument may seem far fetched. On the other hand, if Iran was really fudging the enrichment data using Chinese-supplied UF6, the best explanation might really be that Iran was just trying to stir up trouble. Why else would someone claim they have nuclear capabilities when they do not in fact have them? The explanation given by the BBC, that Iran was "setting up a marker" that would protect them from international sanctions when they do really have the capability to enrich uranium.

It is likewise unclear to me why, if the US does not have a good solution to the Iranian nuclear problem, they refuse to negotiate with Iran. Very likely nothing would be accomplished. The Iranians would probably essentially deliver another "Accept the true faith or die" sermon much like the message of President Ahmadinejad's letter to George Bush. However, the US government would gain support for action of some sort against Iran among Europeans and in the Muslim world, as well as at home, if they demonstrated that they had first exhausted all reasonable diplomatic channels. It is true that Iran will be utilizing the time to regine uranium and bring themselves closer to making a bomb, but they are doing that anyhow, and it may be that the US has no other real option. Now it is also reported a "split" between the US and EU, claiming that the US is reluctant to accept a European incentive package that would include nuclear reactors for Iran. That is hard to understand, since the Bushehr reactor being completed by the Soviets is already a done deal. Nonetheless, the report quotes

In any case, the US government would have a tough time explaining why it insists that Israel try to negotiate with the Hamas-led Palestinian government rather than resorting to unilateral actions, while at the same time it refuses to negotiate with Iran. According to the report, EU diplomats said Washington was uncomfortable with the idea of offering Iran any reactors and was loathe to ask Congress to exempt EU firms from U.S. penalties for nuclear deals with Iran. However both the US and the Europeans quickly denied that any decision had been made to offer Iran reactors or to reject that idea. The split, like everything else, is unclear fission.

On the other hand, in a new development, Iran announced that no security guarantees would induce it to stop its uranium refining activities, and that there are no incentives that would induce it to give up refining uranium. If that is so, then why bother to negotiate at all? Negotations about nothing would clearly be an exercise in public relations and nothing more, though perhaps worthwhile as such. Iran has declared apparently, that they intend to go ahead with their nuclear development program regardless of anything anyone might offer them, unless they are stopped by force.

I am sorry if I confused and frustrated many of you by not taking a clear stand that agrees or disagrees wholly with one side or the other. However, that is the nature of unclear arguments about unclear physics. They are, well, unclear.

Ami Isseroff

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000460.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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Replies: 6 comments

Dear Ami:

I don't know how you came to the conclusion that Juan Cole is an Iran supporter. Argue against Juan Cole's arguments which sound pretty solid and don't mention an Israeli or U.S. invasion.

Justin Raimondo of antiwar.com gives an alternate take on the Iranian letter something not mentioned by Western media outlets including the Indepedant which you Ami used as a source when in your first article about the Iran letter. The letter also mentioned things such as:

1. "September Eleven was a horrendous incident. The killing of innocents is deplorable and appalling in any part of the world. Our government immediately declared its disgust with the perpetrators and offered its condolences to the bereaved and expressed its sympathies."

2. "In media charters, correct dissemination of information and honest reporting of a story are established tenets. I express my deep regret about the disregard shown by certain Western media for these principles. The main pretext for an attack on Iraq was the existence of WMDs. This was repeated incessantly – for the public to finally believe – and the ground set for an attack on Iraq."

3. "All governments have a duty to protect the lives, property, and good standing of their citizens. Reportedly your government employs extensive security, protection, and intelligence systems – and even hunts its opponents abroad. September 11 was not a simple operation. Could it be planned and executed without coordination with intelligence and security services – or their extensive infiltration? Of course this is just an educated guess…."

These parts of the letter as Raimondo points out were not mentioned by many media sources yet Ami they provide proof that Ahmadinejad said more than some hate filled sermon. This is the link to the article Raimondo wrote by the way:


Posted by Butros Dahu @ 05/22/2006 09:53 AM CST

This is the link to the actual letter itself:


Posted by Butros Dahu @ 05/22/2006 09:57 AM CST

1. is an empty gesture. An alibi. Iran does not support the attack in 9/11, other attacks they do support.

2. is just another part of the long list of accusations against the US in the letter, from Iraq to South America and Africa. Even if we agree with criticism against the US on these issues, Iran is not in the position to lecture the US.

3. seems to be a hint to the allegation that conspiracy theories the attacks in 9/11 were done by Israel or by the US itself.

All these sections are pretty much in thesame spirit as the rest of the letter.

Posted by Micha @ 05/23/2006 10:25 PM CST

Funny, after three years of looking,
after three years of Iran co-operating with at least one agreement they are under no legal obligation to follow,
after three years of answering questions

has been found
concerning Iran and a nuclear weapons program.

I don't care what you suspect
I care what you know
You don't know '' Interview with Takeyh

One might have thought that the last war would have taught you all something about believe warmongering speech.

Posted by JS Narins @ 05/24/2006 03:22 PM CST

Money quote:

"Well, as I said, there's no reason to believe that a nuclear energy program cannot, at some point, be transformed into a nuclear weapons program. But to suggest that they have made the conclusive determination to have nuclear weapons irrespective of cost, international opinion, and the possibility of multilateral sanctions, seems to me to be going too far. And for those who suggest that it is absolutely conclusively determined that Iran wants to have nuclear weapons, I think it behooves them to provide some kind of evidence for that claim."

Posted by Joshua Narins @ 05/24/2006 03:24 PM CST

My first comment got eaten, sorry.

It included a link to this interview.

I think you just want to believe Iran is evil,
so you will listen to unreliable people
rather than accept that
at this points
no evidence exists on Earth
to support your claim.

You quote a Pakistani General.
The Pakistanis, even before the Taliban came to power,
supported the Taliban.
The Iranians fought the Taliban,
and had been the #1 supporters
of the Northern Alliance
before America came along.

And now a Pakistani says Iran is working on a nuclear bomb?

You typed "t is unclear to me, though I may be the only one in the dark, how everyone can be so sure that the uranium enrichment program we know about is the only nuclear development program in Iran, or how the US could know that Iran is 4 years (some say 10 years) away from making a bomb?" and I said this shows you are in the dark.

1. Iran has only so many nuclear scientists. Do you believe the CIA and the IAEA simply ignore them, or do you think they are monitored? If Iran has a super-super-ultra-secret nuclear lab somewhere, who is staffing it?

2. Every shred of uranium and plutonium in Iran is under IAEA safeguards, and the IAEA consistently reports that it is all accounted for. Where is the uranium and plutonium for this super-secret nuclear lab coming from? Do you realizee it would take a ton or more of uranium to get enough for one bomb?

3. The enrichment of uranium sends particles into space. The shielding of enrichment is far, far, far, far more expensive than the enrichment itself. If the Iranians have a super-secret lab, they've already spent five to fifty times as much on it as on their main program, but that gets back to point 1. Why would they have untrained scientists working on their top program, and have their top scientists work on the cover program? Makes no sense. Uranium enrichment is detectable from MILES AND MILES AWAY. Many forms of radiation are detectable from space. Get it?

Posted by Joshua Narins @ 05/24/2006 03:31 PM CST

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